When you think about innovation and invention, what comes to mind? Teleportation devices? Holograms? (Congratulations, you're normal.) Those types of items are admittedly awesome to imagine, but they shouldn't be all you envision. That's according to Dr. Daria Hazuda, who is known for her work in HIV and Hepatitis C treatment, and who currently serves as Vice President, Infectious Diseases Discovery and Chief Science Officer for the MRL Cambridge Exploratory Science Center of world-leading pharmaceutical company Merck. Hazuda recently shared her thoughts with Inc. about medicine as innovation.

How consumers see medicines and vaccines

Hazuda asserts that people view medical innovation much differently than other developments companies create. "What we found in the survey that [Merck] conducted...is that most people don't think of medicines and vaccines as 'inventions'. While they understand their importance, they don't associate them with the same process of invention, or see them in the same category as other, trendier technologies. We don't know for sure 'why', but I think it's a combination of factors. Mostly that...most technological inventions are items people want to use. But no one wants to be in the position of needing medicines, because that means that they or a loved one are sick."

The technological conditioning shoppers have to expect immediate response and accessibility might affect their view, too. In a time when shoppers are able to grab virtually any data they want on the go in mere seconds, the wait associated with medicines isn't very alluring, failing to ping the reward centers in the brain at a glance the way other innovations like Facebook can.

"I always tell people that it is important to appreciate that it takes so many people a lot of time and resilience," Hazuda asserts. "Scientific research and biomedical invention isn't about instant gratification...it takes fortitude to overcome challenges and focus to maintain a vision...You have to be tenacious, be able to take a step back and think differently about a problem and explore biology in new ways. It truly is a journey of adapting, and learning, and shifting and adapting again."

Why changing perception matters

Bringing attention to this specific type of research and development is essential for multiple reasons:

  • Good discussion of medical innovation might improve the odds that people will get involved in clinical trials or ask their physicians about options that might be available. It becomes easier to make educated decisions as an informed consumer. Notably, a Harris Interactive Survey showed that 85 percent of patients were either unaware or unsure that participation in a clinical trial was an option at the time of diagnosis, and that 75 percent of those patients would have been willing to enroll, had they only known it was possible.
  • Investors might put more of their money into medical science, decreasing the time it takes to develop a medicine or boosting the number of medicines a company can create.
  • Those suffering illnesses and their loved ones can suffer less stigmatization, as medicines and medical products are normalized in everyday conversation. That can affect stress levels and, subsequently, affect health outcomes.

But most importantly, supporting medical innovation improves or saves lives, controlling outbreaks and reducing symptoms like pain, weakness and nausea.

Hazuda says that, with the technologies scientists now have available, companies are pushing the boundaries of science in the hopes of making "impossible" goals--for example, curing cancer--reality.

"What we hope people find reassuring," Hazuda says, "is that...there is incredible science happening today that will hopefully lead to more breakthroughs with the potential to make a lasting impact on people's health...We have the opportunity to totally uncover totally new ways of fighting disease, which makes me--and should make others--incredibly hopeful about the future of medicines and vaccines, and what we'll invent next."

What you can do

Hazuda hopes the conversation about medicine as invention can start now, carried out both at home and online where it can inspire people of all generations. And there are lots of easy ways to get involved, such as

  • Posting articles about medical news on your social media accounts or blog
  • Asking your doctor for materials to share about current research
  • Starting outreach programs in your community
  • Asking your financial planner or investment advisor to include medical companies in the investment options they suggest for you
  • Asking your employer or their fund manager to expand 401(k) investment options to include more medical options
  • Contacting your local legislators to encourage legislation that keeps medical research more efficient and better funded
  • Guest speaking at local schools to encourage the next generation of medical scientists to enter the field

Taking these types of steps by no means diminishes the importance of other, non-medical innovation. It merely encourages people to see invention for everything it can be, and to understand that some of the best results are within us, rather than on store shelves. So next time you're tempted to ask what Elon Musk has up his sleeve, ask what new treatments are out there, too.